Episode 2: How Outlining Works


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Season 3, Episode 2: How Outlining Works

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 3, Episode 2: How Outlining Works – or if you like, outlining for beginners.

Here’s Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Anna-Rose, who says: How should a writer go about outlining, if they haven’t done it before? I don’t know where to start!

Good question, Anna-Rose! As listeners might remember, last week we talked about the difference between plotting and pantsing. So I thought it made sense to pair these two episodes, and talk today about how to try outlining, especially if it’s not your natural habitat.

You might find you’re immediately inclined to lay out your story before you begin, or you might be showing up to give it a try because your writing stalled out. Either way, there are lots of good options, so let’s get into them.

The first thing you should know is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are some great outlining structures out there, and you can and should take a look at them.

You could look at the basic three act structure—we’ll have an episode on this later in the season, but essentially, it’s a structure that lays out what needs to happen at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of your story—where there should be obstacles, reversals of fortune, climax and resolution. 

You could also check out The Hero’s Journey – this was popularized by Joseph Campbell, who laid out this structure—which is said to lie behind essentially all stories—in his book The Hero Has A Thousand Faces. There are plenty of resources online that talk you through how it works, but one way to think about it is that as well as laying out the moments when the action happens—as three act structure does—it also lays out what’s happening emotionally for your protagonist at those moments.

You could look at the Save The Cat structure, which is related to both three act structure and The Hero’s Journey. It was created for screenwriters by Blake Snyder, but adapted for novelists by Jessica Brody. I think the way she teaches it in a short video course through her Writing Mastery Academy is fantastic—and that’s not an ad, I paid my own money to check it out!

You could look at The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson—it’s available online, and is an approach that says you start out with a one sentence pitch, and then work it up to a paragraph, a page, and so on, adding complexity each time.

If you’d like to start outlining, using one of these models to walk you through what elements you need in your story can help highlight the gaps you need to fill, and get you asking helpful questions as you brainstorm. There are lots of resources available on all of them.

But how do you actually do your brainstorming? Well, as you can imagine, there are a million methods under the sun, but I’m going to give you mine—just remember, as I said last episode, that what works for one writer might not work for another. If this doesn’t work for you, perhaps you can think about why it doesn’t work, and use that to create an option that does.

It’s pretty basic. I start with some index cards in three different colours. Let me say—because I know writers are procrastinators—that you don’t have to stop and go out to buy index cards. If I have to, I just cut up larger pieces of paper, and draw a stripe across the top of them in three different colours of highlighter. Anything that helps you tell them apart.

On the first colour, I write down any big plot points I think might happen in this book. It doesn’t matter if I know where they go, or how many are missing. We’re talking about stuff like “they steal the jewel” or “they escape from prison” or “she discovers she can transform into a dragon.” To be clear, if I’m writing down “they escape from prison,” I don’t need any kind of prison escape plan yet. Just to know that it will happen.

On the next colour card, I write down developmental moments. Again, I don’t need to know when they happen in the book, or how. So they might be moments like “she decides he’s a total jerk” and “she realizes he’s not a jerk at all” and “he realizes he is capable of stepping up and taking charge.”

And on the third colour, I write down whatever worldbuilding and flavor I happen to have. Again—you might be spotting a trend here—it doesn’t matter what gaps exist, or whether it’s all compatible. I’m just taking what’s in my brain and dumping it out onto paper, which will make room for new ideas.

So on this third colour paper, I might put in moments that give a flavor of the book, from very large to very small. Say, “it snows 364 days a year” or “everyone wears snowsuits with personal designs on them, so you can tell who’s who—it’s a fashion thing” or “the gods of these two countries are enemies” or “the academy has squads of six, each member with a different job.”

So, now I’ve got a zillion coloured cards with pieces of info scrawled on them.

My next step is to clear off my dining table, or some other big surface, and start laying them out. Slowly but surely, I start sliding them into order. Some stuff, I might have no idea where it goes. That’s okay—put it over on the side for now. Other stuff will be a little more self explanatory. For instance, I know that the two main characters meeting will go towards the start. Or I know that this battle will go towards the end. I know this heartbreaking betrayal will happen about halfway through as a midpoint twist, setting up the rest of the book.

At this stage, I might be using one of the structures I discussed earlier—three act, or Save The Cat—and letting that guide where these moments fit into my story.

All I’m doing at this stage is just laying out what I know. Then—and you might want to wait until you’re alone for this—I start to talk through the story out loud. I tell myself what I know about it, and I spot the gaps.

“Okay, so here she’s aboard the ship she lives on, and here they leave harbor—and then here the ship is attacked. So something has to go between that departure and the attack. I’ll write a card saying that she meets the prince who’s a passenger aboard, and one saying we see how his magic works. Oh, and I can take this flavor card I wrote that says magicians have these cool, tattoo-like marks on their skin and add it in here, while she’s learning about the magic. Now, what else will happen before they’re attacked?”

Do you see how I’m starting to build, by spotting the gaps between the things I know? Incidentally, if that particular outline I just mentioned sounds fun, you should be subscribing to my new podcast, Pub Dates, because I’m talking about plot points there from The Isles of the Gods, which is one of the books the podcast is about.

What do I do next? I do it again. I keep telling myself the story, and any time I could be using the word ‘somehow’ – “so, somehow they get to the city” or “somehow, they get a key to their cell,” I try and think about how that somehow could become a specific, and jot it down. Occasionally that does mean taking a card out and putting it to the side, and replacing it with something else. And that’s okay. Piece by piece, I end up with enough of an outline to start writing. And of course, with an approach like this, you can get as detailed as you like—or keep it big picture.

So there you have it—a bunch of outlining systems you can use, and a reason to spend some quality time with index cards.

And here’s an exercise: This week you might be looking up The Hero’s Journey, Three Act Structure or Save The Cat Writes A Novel to learn more, but I’m going to give you something smaller.

Take a book you’ve read recently, and think about the plot. Can you think of the moment that happens at the beginning, where everything changes? Can you spot a place in the middle—it’s okay to flip it open if you want—where everything changes, and the true stakes are revealed? That’s structure right there, and by looking at these moments, you’re developing your ability to spot it.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about writing in micro bursts.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new listeners find the podcast, and I really appreciate it. I’ll also remind you to check out Pub Dates, where Kate and I will take you behind the scenes on the countdown to launching our next books.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, author of the upcoming novel Nightbirds. You can find her online at katejarmstrong.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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